Geoffrey Nunberg, Robert Lowth and punctuation theory

Working on the punctuation practice of 18th-century letter writers, I was intrigued by the title of Geoffrey Nunberg‘s book, The Linguistics of Punctuation (1990). The book didn’t have what I was looking for, was in fact more about developing a theory of text-grammar in which punctuation plays a major role than about punctuation as a linguistic topic in its own right. Reading the book did produce some unexpected things for me though.

There are many references – in footnotes only to be sure – to usage guides, particularly Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926 edition!), the Fowler brothers’ The King’s English (the 1931 edition) and Partridge’s You Have a Point There (1953). This puts Nunberg into the category of linguists who, as I found out in a survey held in December 2007 among the members of the Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas, do not consult usage guides but only use them for research (see my book Describing Prescriptivism, 2020, p. 3). It also puts Nunberg into the category of people who as I learnt still rely on Fowler’s 1926 edition even though more recent editions are available. Perhaps it is just that, like so many people, he happened to own a copy of this version of the book.

But what caught my attention most was his reference to “Bishop [sic] Lowth’s influential grammar of 1762” (p. 86), which includes a lengthy quotation from Lowth’s discussion of punctuation. No page numbers are given (1762, pp. 156-158), and original paragraphing is not maintained, but the main interest of Lowth’s discussion is adequately represented, i.e. what the marks of punctuation are, but also the way in which punctuation marks correspond in proportional duration with musical notation: the semibrief with the period, the minim with the colon, the crotchet with the semicolon and the quaver with the comma.

Nunberg does not quite agree with Lowth’s account, but he was clearly struck by it to the extent that he included a large section from the grammar in his book. I do wonder though what made Nunberg consult Lowth on the subject. That Lowth’s grammar contains a section on punctuation was not unusual at the time: according to Ian Michael in his book English Grammatical Categories (1970), “[p]unctuation is included in about sixty per cent of the grammars, taken over the whole period”, that is, 1586-1800 (p. 195). But what caused Lowth to make the link with musical notation? Searching ECCO with the help of the keywords “music” and “punctuation” did not produce any relevant hits. Lowth was interested in music, since he is the author of the text which was later turned into the libretto for Handel’s Choice of Hercules, and had consulted the grammarian and patron of music (ODNB) James Harris about his own grammar. So did Lowth think of the correlation between punctuation marks and musical notation himself?

The Linguistics of Punctuation, Nunberg
Source: University of Chicago Press

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Language columns in major newspapers

It’s great to come across language columns in newspapers like The Economist and, more recently, the New York Times. It is even greater if they deal with aspects of prescriptivism, and linguists’ as well as the general public’s reactions to them. Last week, John McWhorter wrote about pronoun usage in a piece called You and Me Need to Talk, citing the first (British) English usage guide that deals with the issue, The Vulgarities of Speech Corrected (1826). (The first American usage guide to treat this usage item would be Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence, published thirty years later.)

As a linguist, McWhorter argues, he has no problems with sentences like the one in the title of his piece. What do you think? I’d be interested to know.

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Roadkill’s scriptwriters

For a paper I’m writing on the use of who/whom I’m trying to get in touch with the scriptwriters of Roadkill, a British political thriller series that was broadcast in the UK and the US towards the end of 2020 and in The Netherlands in January – February of this year.

My question is whether in condemning the inappropriate use of who in the context in question the choice of phrase (is not English rather than is not good English) was made deliberately and why. I tried to find out by writing to the director, David Hare, but got no response. Perhaps not surprisingly, since he must get a lot of email from fans and others interested in the series.

But I was wondering if there is a different, and better, way of getting in touch with the scriptwriters of the series? Can anyone help please?

Cast of Roadkill: Who is in the drama with Hugh Laurie and where have you  seen them... - Heart

Source: https://www.heart.co.uk/showbiz/tv-movies/cast-roadkill-drama-hugh-laurie/
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Le Carré’s main character spinning in his grave

Reading another spy novel by John Le Carré, this time Absolute Friends (2003), I didn’t expect to come across any metalinguistic comments relating to prescriptivism since most of the novel is situated in Germany. But I did find this absolute gem (p. 353):

“His [i.e. the main character, Mundy] old classroom is bare: desks, chairs, coatracks, all gone, sold. But his writing is still on the blackboard, and he can hear his own voice reading it:

As a valued customer of British Rail, we would like to apologize to you for the presence of the wrong kind of snow on the line.

Question: Who is the customer?

Question: Who is the subject of the sentence?

Question: Why is this the wrong kind of sentence?

Why would Le Carré have chosen this particular usage problem, I wondered? The answer appeared about 90 pages later, when Jake, Mundy’s son, at a press conference upon his father’s death, produced “a grammatical solecism that must have had Mundy spinning in his grave: ‘As my natural father, I shall always feel there is a hole in my life I can never fill’” (p. 445)

Source: Amazon

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Pronouncing prescient properly

Watching the new Netflix series The Chair, I was struck by two metalinguistic comments, both made by the main character Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, chair of the English department, who consequently comes across as being a bit of a pedant. The first comment is about who/whom (which I’ll be speaking about tomorrow in my presentation at the sixth Prescriptivism conference in Vigo, Spain). The second is about the pronunciation of prescient.

David Duchovny, who is to substitute for a teacher who was penalised for having allegedly made the Hitler salute in class, pronounces the word prescient as /ˈprɛsɪənt/, upon which he is corrected by professor Kim, who says: “I think it’s pronounced /ˈprɛʃənt/, unless we’re English.” By which she means British, as indeed Duchovny responds by retorting: “Aren’t we speaking English?”

Professor Kim is right: the Oxford English Dictionary neatly distinguishes between a British and American English pronunciation. But I couldn’t helpt checking the Internet, and found an amazing number of YouTube videos giving advice on how to pronounce prescient, dating between 2015 and 2020. Does this signal the birth of a new usage problem?

Source: netflix.com
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The pedant in him …

… is sparked off by spotting an exclamation mark where a question would normally be expected. Or actually, by the vacuousness of the contents of the welcoming message found when booking into his hotel room. All this is part of one of John le Carré’s main characters’ interior monologue at the start of his novel A Delicate Truth (2013).

Unfortunately for my purposes – the paper which I am presenting at the Prescriptivism Conference in Vigo next week – this is the only metalinguistic comment that does not refer to accent, or “voice” as le Carré refers to it.

Practically all characters in the novel are defined in terms of their accents: “his carefully nurtured Glaswegian accent”, “his gentle Welsh lilt”, “drawling in upper-end English of the very best sort”, “a forthright British voice, educated, one of us”, “the officer-class voice”, “she sounded like an Essex schoolmistress”, “her voice not Welsh but old-fashioned fighting Irish”, his “own voice, but without its Foreign Office polish”: social class is clearly an issue in this novel.

But alas, no references to grammatical shibboleths or other usage problems that I might have added to my list of metalinguistic comments in English literature. Still, what I did find in this novel confirms le Carré’s interest in language commentary as a means of setting down his characters.

Source: Amazon.co.uk
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The project continues …

The Bridging the Unbridgeable project officially ended nearly five years ago, but almost all of us are presenting a paper at the next Prescriptivism Conference, held online (no fee!) at the University of Vigo from 23 – 25 September 2021. Here are the papers we will be presenting (listed in chronological order according to the conference programme):

Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Breaking the who/whom rule: the final taboo?

Viktorija Kostadinova, 150 years of ideas about language: the aims of metalinguistic works in American English

Alyssa Severin & Carmen Ebner, “It is still all icky and American”: investigating British and Australian English speakers’ attitudes towards verb conversions

Carmen Ebner, “Your not my type”: effects of stigmatized linguistic variation in online dating

Theresa Heyd & Morana Lukač, The making of linguistic authority in the postdigital age

Morana Lukač & Adrian Stenton, What guides copy‐editors’ decisions? From grammatical to sociolinguistic determinants

And there will be many more interesting papers – not forgetting the plenaries! – besides. You will find the programme as well as the abstracts, here. And remember, no fees!

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Is whilst superseding while? But is it?

Reading the work of my younger academic colleagues, I get the feeling that whilst is making a comeback. Why would that be the case?

Strangely though, I don’t see this perceived increased frequency reflected in usage as we can access it through the Google ngram interface (I checked it for British English), nor does the OED record any instances more recent than those that are over a century old. So what is going on here?

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Owners of a copy of Lowth’s grammar (1762)

I expect readers of this blog will also be interested in the grammar by Robert Lowth (1762 and many later editions). And if so, does any of you possess an original copy, from whatever date? If you do, please help me find out more about the grammar’s original owners. As explained on the Robert Lowth blog, I’ve set myself the more than ambitious task to identify as many of the owners of the 34,000 copies that were printed as possible.

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Twitter hashtag #usanall

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